Bot Rodders get their feet wet
at international robot competition © Aug. 8, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications
It’s Friday morning in a cluttered engineering laboratory at Norwich University, and time is running out.
Three young men are throwing every effort into a robot designed to move, see, hear and think underwater. They have to be ready to plunge the autonomous underwater vehicle [AUV] into a swimming pool by the end of the weekend. It needs to be ready to compete against AUVs from bigger colleges—schools that have been perfecting their watercraft far longer—in less than two weeks.
They’re wired and tired, but the mood is bright and their determination evident.
“Three hours’ sleep in three days,” grinned Ryan Wood, a graduate of the mechanical engineering program and one of the major designers of the three-foot, 30-pound submersible robot, called Poseidon. Wood stepped away from the jumbled work table to lift up several lengths of silver, curved tubing for inspection by Ron Lessard, an engineering professor overseeing their work. He’s found the right pipes at last, Wood told Lessard. These, from a discarded swimming pool ladder, will finally allow the nozzles to function properly. Before, the tubing was too narrow. It tended to leak, and wouldn’t let them build adequate pressure for the propulsion and directional systems to work.
“It was literally throwing water out the front [of the AUV],” said Wood.
Wood has been working on the project for a year and a half, from the time fellow student John Walthour suggested the engineering department’s robotics club, dubbed Bot Rodders, take a shot at an international competition in San Diego. A group of 11 students dug into the project, starting with a tighter core of Wood and computer engineering student Jon Seward, who secured fellowships to spend the summer of 2007 in planning and research. The AUV project quickly evolved into Norwich’s largest engineering project, with financial help from NASA, the U.S. Navy and private businesses.
The tables in the engineering lab at Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, were piled with tools, bits of cable and fast-food wrappers that morning. In one corner rested a prototype robot made of wood and PVC, held together with plastic ties. Each engineer drifted to a different corner of the room to work on some of the mind-bogglingly long list of systems that make the vehicle work. For competition, the AUV must see and hear information that allows it to navigate a complicated underwater course, picking up objects and dropping off markers, without external prompting.
For Wood, Seward and incoming electrical engineering senior Chris Cote, the project is consuming, and draws them back to the Northfield, Vt., campus on weekends. Their goal as a “rookie” team, according to Seward, is not necessarily to win, but to put Norwich on the robotics map with some new ideas. For example, he described the propulsion system, designed primarily by Wood, which uses a single propeller to force water into a system of tubes, creating pressure. This is utilized by nozzles controlled with a computer.
To demonstrate, Seward held up a section of tubing draped in wire and connected to the disassembled body of the robot. Cote reached over to a laptop computer and tapped a key, prompting an attached valve to toggle up and down and rotate shut to prevent the escape of water. Most submersible robots, Seward said, use a system of multiple propellers to move and control direction.
“This competition’s about ingenuity,” said Seward, who now works for an engineering firm in Northern Virginia. “We want to show people there are other ways to do things.”
It’s been a long road. There have been setbacks, failed designs and communication problems.
“We would set a date for a water test, and every time it got pushed back,” said Wood, gesturing toward the carcass of the submarine. It was supposed to be assembled and functioning months ago.
Setbacks were frustrating, Seward said, but they’ve never considered letting the project drop. “We’ve done everything we could do to stay optimistic,” he said.
Cote added that in the earliest stages, with the group divided into teams to work on different systems, was a lesson in leadership. “That was probably the hardest part—motivating 10 people,” he said. “I basically had to accommodate everyone and make rules for everyone.”
There were benefits to being latecomers to the competition. Before starting, the engineers had the benefit of 10 years of accumulated knowledge to draw on, and were able to pick and choose the best ideas. Seward added he learned good lessons during the process of raising money—estimated at $25,000 to $30,000—for the project. As Norwich is a small school, they had to rely on grants and donations from small businesses.
“We actually had to find out what it’s like to go out to companies and market our product,” he said.
Lessard called it the best academic exercise he could imagine, and one that will serve the students well professionally. In the process of building the AUV, they have learned design, planning, fundraising, promotion and public relations.
“This is the mountaintop experience,” said Lessard. “Those are the top-level things we look for our engineers to have.”